Speaking before this weekend's Sydney Mardi Gras, the performer Courtney Act went to the heart of today's political and cultural struggles:
People having the opportunity to … picture themselves in someone else’s experience – [It] fosters a sense of empathy. Empathy is what is missing right now in the world. We’re yelling from opposite sides of the room and nothing’s getting done.
(Guardian interview 23 February 2020)
Sadly, but probably accurately, Courtney's view is also that whilst “the world has become more respectful of diversity in general … Australia is still definitely behind the eight ball.”
How do we move beyond this?
In the midst of handover work for our impending move, it was lovely today to have a visit from my dear friends Mr Haniff and Meiling, updating me on the UNESCO partnerships we have been working on with others in Toowoomba and bringing me a beautiful new year's greeting card from the Venerable Master Chin Kung.
The front of the card has this interesting picture. What do you see in it? An explanation is given below.... It can be misinterpreted by those who see inter-religious dialogue as seeking some kind of mish-mash of philosophies. Yet I do not feel that this is that at all. Rather it is an expression of the deep understanding of the Venerable Chin Kung that all great pathways of wisdom can connect. Indeed that they connect most deeply when we walk together in peace and harmony. May this be a blessing for us all in 2017.
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
In our increasingly multi-faith and multi-cultural society, one challenge is how we find both meaningful and inclusive ways to celebrate, commemorate, lament and strengthen bonds of peace and harmony. On the one hand, erasing spiritual expression in the name of secular unity impoverishes and leaves us short of the depth and connections which community ritual can bring. On the other, it is not enough today simply to settle regularly for one expression of faith leadership, however well tried, nor just to include several such expressions (at the risk of length, tedium, and exclusion of other 'minority' voices). In Toowoomba, we have employed various approaches in recent years for important community gatherings and recognition of disaster and tragedy. Depending on circumstances, through the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, we have both used traditional means and venues and multi-faith representation, and have also begun to create new pathways.
One of the most moving explorative community rituals was at Acland on Australia Day 2015 - see further here - but we have also developed a number of 'community affirmations' for special occasions, including Harmony Day - see here for a well-established example. Last Sunday was another wonderful step forward. Together with Toowoomba Regional Council, it was a delight, as chair of the Toowoomba Goodwill Committee, to work with the Nepalese Association of Toowoomba on a commemorative event to mark the Nepal earthquake last year. Using the lovely new Civic Square space at the new Toowoomba Library, we shared stories, music, video clips from Nepal, and a moving candlelight vigil - first lighting and circling the area with candles and then placing them by the water. It was a powerful expression of lament and commitment to renewal and of the binding of our different lives and backgrounds together to celebrate, support and heal our shared city and world.
My own contribution to the event is below - a new community affirmation for such occasions I hope we can develop further with other elements in the future:
TOOWOOMBA STANDING TOGETHER
Community Affirmation in the face of disaster and emergency
We meet today to affirm and support each other.
We acknowledge the first peoples of this land and their continued gifts among us.
We welcome all who join us in our shared journey of peace and harmony.
May we always celebrate our diversity as central to our common life and fruitfulness.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to share and honour our pain and sadness.
We hold with tenderness all that is hurting among us and in our broken world.
We offer up our sorrow, heartache and compassion.
May our tears and grief be transformed into healing and renewal.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together
We meet today to strengthen hope and solidarity.
We pledge ourselves to rebuild with love and courage.
We seek to do all we can to rejuvenate what has been destroyed.
May our hearts and hands always reach out to those in need, wherever they may be.
We stand with one another – Toowoomba Together:
many outlooks, many cultures – one community.
What a beautiful start to 2016 at St Luke's, with a delightful New Years Day 'building bonds of humanity' community friendship tea at the Toowoomba City Labyrinth, organised by the Islamic Interfaith & Multicultural Association of Toowoomba. It was a great joy to offer and share hospitality together, as a symbol of our hope and mutual intent for the coming year. With music and dance, positive but concise speeches, food and drink and wonderful company (Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and all sorts), it was another sign of our 'model city of peace and harmony' in action.
It is hard to pick a special moment in the afternoon - a gorgeous Toowoomba summer day - as there were many, including the joy of many of our other faith friends, young and old, exploring St Luke's church building itself. Perhaps my favourite however was the men's dance (the first I think on the labyrinth), recalling the words of the psalmist (Psalm 133.1): 'how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell (and dance!) together in unity'.
After the recent bombings in Paris, our Toowoomba Gooodwill Committee leadership decided to hold a gathering to bring together community leaders to strengthen our social cohesion and resilience. Held at the University of Southern Queensland this was well attended, facilitated by Professor Michael Cuthill and expert in research on social cohesion. Speakers also included the Mayor of Toowoomba Cllr Paul Antonio, Inspector Mike Curtin from Queensland Police Service, Venerable Wu Ping from Pure Land Learning College, Professor Ken Udas from USQ, and university student Sophie Ryan. Bishop Cameron Venables also led an engaging question and answer session with the panel of speakers and contributions from the floor - not least a several positive contributions from members of the Toowoomba Muslim community. Key themes included positivity, whole community engagement, valuing diversity, partnership building, leadership into action, open and truthful education, and acknowledgement of the need to read sacred scriptures and traditions in context and with a deep spirit of love and humanity, acknowledging potential 'texts of terror'. For my own introductory words as Goodwill chairperson click below on read more...
my address to the Vesak Conference at UNESCO, Paris, 28 May 2015 as part of the Toowoomba 'Model City of Peace and Harmony' presentation
Let me begin with some words from a great poet and priest in my Anglican tradition:
No one is an island entire of itself; every one is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; … any one's death diminishes me, because I am involved in humankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
This wisdom is still powerful today, even though John Donne himself lived through the violent crises of his own age 400 years ago. For they are words for us all. Whilst they embody Christian understanding about human-divine solidarity, they are also reflected in other wisdom traditions, not least Buddhism. For no one can be an island today: no person, no religion, no country. What happens, for example, here in Paris, affects the rest of the world. In response to their own trials, many French people have said Je suis Charlie Hebdo. At it its best, that is another way of saying what John Donne said long ago. For whatever bell tolls - in Sri Lanka, USA, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, the Congo, Toowoomba, or wherever – it tolls for us all...
This week I spent two days reflecting together with others on the next steps in the journey of peace and harmony in Toowoomba. The first day was with other members of the Goodwill Committee, developed at the invitation of the Pure Land Learning College to help give community direction to the Pure Land Venerable Master's vision of Toowoomba as 'a model city' of peace and harmony. On the second day we joined by some other wonderful key community leaders, acting as 'critical friends' to help take forward our hopes and ideas. Thanks are also due to Prof Michael Cuthill of USQ for his able facilitation. For it was a very profitable time, developing our structure (even if I was asked to be GWC chair for the forthcoming year!), our shared sense of purpose and key areas of partnership with others. GWC groups are now working particularly on specifics for: the development of agreed community values for our work, Indigenous engagement, youth engagement, peace art, further multi-faith understanding and action, and grounding our connections with UNESCO through official partnerships such as the 'Creative Cities' program.
For a number of years in my last job I was a frequent visitor to the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place, the site of the recent Sydney siege. It was a common stopover after our combined New South Wales Churches’ executive meeting and a great place to relax and be refreshed. Ironically we also often discussed the many inter-faith and peace initiatives with which we were involved. For Sydney is an amazing place, full of so many different peoples, faiths and cultures. The range of that diversity can be a challenge but it is a great tribute to the city that so much positive inter-faith and peace prayer and action has been fostered over the years. This is part of what of what will enable Sydney, and the rest of Australia, to triumph and flourish after the tragedy of recent events.
The Sydney siege is a further confirmation of how vital is our prayer and work for community harmony, not least through the Toowoomba ‘Model City of Peace and Harmony’ initiative. When such terrible events happen, as they happen in different ways daily across the world, they can either erode our trust in one another or impel us to renew our faith in the love at the heart of the universe, differently displayed in various faiths and cultures. The strong base of relationships we have already established in Toowoomba certainly puts us in a good position to support those who are afflicted, to share solidarity with Muslims and others who are afraid or fear victimisation, and to create new partnerships for peace in our lives and wider world. The recent events in Sydney remind us again of how ‘no one is an island’ and how we are all affected by what else happens in our world. At home, Australia has mercifully been free of such events but it has always been connected to them overseas. Such connections can now make us afraid, if we let them, or they can make us stronger than ever in the things that truly matter.
From a Christian perspective, terror at Christmas should hardly be a surprise. Terror is written into the Christmas story itself. For Jesus was born into an oppressive and violent society, and, according to the scriptural stories, the holy family was forced to flee into Egypt as refugees, in the face of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. Yet Christ’s birth stands as a sign that such darkness, then and now, is not the end. There is something much, much stronger and deeper and transforming. So let us trust in that Spirit, shown also in the Magi, people of very different faith and culture, who left their comfort to share the light and love of God at the birth of Jesus. May that peace prevail in our hearts, our community and our world, that Toowoomba with Sydney may be fresh beacons of compassion and peace in the days ahead. Let us ride together on the path of peace.
John Donne's view that 'no one is an island' becomes ever more real in our increasingly interconnected world. Recent violence across the globe has certainly impacted on Australians in a variety of ways, including directly in Toowoomba with the tragic loss of two deeply loved and respected doctors in the destruction of the MH17 flight. Others are directly or indirectly affected by war and violence elsewhere. This can easily raise tensions and prejudices. In addition to a number of community laments and intercessions (such as our ecumenical and interfaith service after the MH17 tragedy and the Day of Prayer for Iraq), local Toowoomba leaders are therefore renewing our efforts to work together for peace and harmony. For peace is not something we can take for granted but always has to be renewed by active relationships and purposeful prayer and action. In this we remain blessed in Toowoomba by our 'Model City' peace and harmony network. It was thus good this week to meet with other members of our Goodwill Committee to talk about how we can make a common stand against violence (see conversation photo above), reaffirming the commitment of all our varied faith and community groups to nurture a more inclusive and humane future. ABC journalist Belinda Sanders was then able to interview us for local radio, helping the positive values of our faiths and communities to balance out the violent excesses which are often over-exaggerated by less responsible media and which then feed negative responses based too much on fear and insecurity.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.